The hydrogen car finally takes shape

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding so that America “can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”

“With a new national commitment,” the president added, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

That child, now an adolescent, still has another 4 and a half years before obtaining a driver’s license, so that dream of his or her first car being hydrogen-powered is well within reach. After almost a decade of talk and promises, the first hydrogen cars are now making it from the drawing boards into showrooms.

Hyundai was first out of the box last spring with the introduction of the hydrogen fuel-cell Tucson. The company now claims to have 71 cars on the road, all of them in California. But it will be soon joined by Toyota, which is treating the introduction of its Mirai (the word means “future” in Japanese) like the arrival of a new baby. Only 3,000 are to be sold during the first year, only in California, and potential buyers are being screened like 3-year-olds applying to an exclusive preschool. “To buy Toyota’s new hydrogen car you’ll need to pass an interview,” read one headline. Deliveries will start in October.

“We’re looking for the bold and the few,” Toyota says on its marketing video, making ownership sound like joining the Marines. Potential buyers are being vetted very seriously to make sure they are prepared for the challenges and not just seeking novelty. And there will be challenges: The car will only be sold at eight dealerships in California. The $57,000 car has a driving range of 320 miles, putting it right next to gasoline engines and well ahead of the 200-mile range of electric vehicles. Its 67 miles-per-gallon puts it in a class by itself. Refueling takes no longer than an ordinary gasoline car. BMW, Honda and Mercedes will also have entries in the next few years.

But refueling stations will be few and far between. There are only eight in the state right now, with 48 more in development, according to this locator operated by the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Toyota has pledged to build more, including a bunch in Connecticut, but that is still far in the future. “Marketing this car is the reverse of selling,” says Mike Sullivan of Toyota Santa Monica, one of the exclusive outlets. “We’re going to turn people down if this car isn’t for you.”

Hydrogen cars run on fuel cells, which are entirely different from the combustion process. The hydrogen is fed into a “polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM),” which separates the molecule’s electron from its proton. The proton passes through the membrane, but the electron is routed around it in a way that creates an electric current. The electron is then reunited with the proton on the opposite side, where it joins oxygen from the air to produce the fuel cell’s only “exhaust” — water vapor. No carbon dioxide is emitted during the process.

The process is ideal for replacing traditional auto exhausts from the combustion process. The only trick is producing the hydrogen, which does not exist freely in nature. Most hydrogen is now being derived from natural gas (methane), although that process produces carbon dioxide. (Toyota shows that livestock manure is one source of the hydrogen that can power the Mirai.) Various experiments have been tried in producing hydrogen from food wastes and other organic materials, but the carbon dioxide remains. The other method is splitting the water molecule through electrolysis, but this is very energy-intensive and expensive. (Fuel cells are often described as reversing electrolysis.)

Although fuel cells have been slow in coming in the automotive sector, they have been making rapid progress in other uses. A good portion of the nation’s forklifts now run on hydrogen, since it is relatively easy to keep a refueling station on-site. A company called Plug Power in upstate New York has had success in selling fuel cells as backup power in businesses and residences. And Bloom Energy, a California company, has made a business of selling fuel cell systems — the “Bloom Box” — to power data centers.

Setting up a network of fueling stations around California and the rest of the country may prove to be more of a challenge, however. A story in Green Car Reports last month said complaints are mounting among hydrogen car owners that even the few refueling stations around California are not working properly. “The stations are frequently inoperative, drivers say, closed for days or weeks at a time,” wrote reporter John Voelcker. “Moreover, even when the stations are functioning properly, there is often an hour-long wait after the first one or two cars – and some stations can only fuel cars to half-full.”

An entire Facebook group of disappointed owners has emerged, and the caustic comments are abundant. “The expectations that were being portrayed — 15 stations being up by the end of 2014 — fell woefully short,” wrote one Hyundai Tucson owner. “There are eight so-called active consumer stations, with three currently working. I would say my wife and I are HUGELY disappointed as we firmly believe in this technology. … But if someone does not plant a huge boot in the behind of the people who are in control of delivering the fueling infrastructure, this will be an epic fail.”

This will be the problem that Toyota and the others will be facing as they prepare to enter the hydrogen race.

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2 replies
  1. Lance Sjogren
    Lance Sjogren says:

    Great, so now we have hydrogen vehicles. Only thing in the way of hydrogen transportation is the absence of a source of hydrogen fuel.

    Extracting hydrogen from natural gas is a pointless endeavor, since then hydrogen is just another fossil fuel. Electrolysis is prohibitely inefficient.

    So where is the hydrogen going to come from?

    Hydrogen vehicles are one of those things that they joke “it is the future and always will be.”

  2. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (ret.)
    R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (ret.) says:

    My old engineering boss got his Masters in Fuel Cells. Over his entire career, he read that in 5 years Fuel Cells would be the killer app for every energy use. He got his degree in 1954 and retired long ago. Today we read many technologies which, in 5 years, will be the killer app.

    All fuel cell cars will be expensive, hard to impossible to fuel, difficult to maintain and perhaps dangerous. (the “gas” tank, for acceptable performance and range will operate in the order of 10,000 psi, filled with a very flammable gas.) . The gas must contain almost no impurities or the fuel cell will quit working, perhaps forever. The sole bulk source of the fuel, at reasonable costs, would be nuclear reactors, hundreds of them if this technology became common.

    Fuel cells in structures, with pipes, may have a future, but cost will be a barrier for mobile vehicular propulsion.

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